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Preparing for a strategic future: Interview with a leading EA

By Roddy Adair, Director, Hays Personal & Executive Assistants

The role of executive assistant (EA) is changing, evolving to make better use of technology and offer more strategic input into business operations. To keep up with the rapid pace of change, both aspiring and experienced PAs and EAs need to take steps to operate more as business managers than traditional assistants.

To find out how best to do this, we spoke to Lisa Neath, an accomplished EA and member of the UK senior executive directorate team at Sulzer. As well as possessing significant EA experience, Lisa is a chartered business manager, and holds level 7 CIPD and CMI qualifications. She lends her vast and varied expertise daily to project management, strategic planning and business management, supporting and co-ordinating her senior management team to achieve key strategic objectives.

Lisa embodies the principle of lifetime learning, which has been a constant feature of her successful career. Now, she’s working to help others adopt the principle so that they in turn can give more back to their organisations and reach the top of their careers.

How did you get started on the EA career path?

‘I left school at 16 and actually trained to be a chef before I even considered an EA career path, but after becoming a Head Chef at the age of 18 and gaining responsibility for profit and loss for my business unit - and leading a six-person team - I found a talent for management and organisation, which was nurtured by my fantastic mentor. I led my team to be the most productive across the group for many consecutive weeks. This experience set me on a course to develop my skills further within an office-based environment. Shortly afterwards I transferred into the global shipping and logistics industry landing a role at P&O as Sales Secretary where I was awarded ‘European Employee of the Year’ - which I am very proud of. From there, it was a short leap to my first EA position and I’ve never looked back.’

What does a ‘typical day’ look like for you?

‘There’s no such thing as a typical day, which is why I enjoy the role. It is very varied and fast-paced. One day I will be negotiating corporate rates and the next I’ll be flying to Scotland to attend a senior management meeting; or I will be sourcing and liaising with training providers for an apprenticeship scheme. Of course, I’ll also be keeping a steady eye on diary and calendar management, ensuring everyone is working as efficiently as possible to achieve our strategic objectives.’

What 3 things do you enjoy most about your career?

‘First and foremost, meeting and working with people from across the world and every area of the business, especially on projects with cross-functional teams. Throughout my PA/EA career I have partnered with FTSE 100 CEOs, vice presidents, government boards and strategic head teachers and coached founders of new seed businesses.

Secondly, helping people grow and achieve, from apprentices to long service employees. I am an advocate for lifelong learning and love to encourage people to aim high and succeed. To this end, in my spare time, I am an education committee member for the award-winning PA Forum, supporting aspiring and long serving EAs, PAs & VAs learning and development. Our first conference in Birmingham was in February with 150+ professionals in attendance and was very successful, receiving lots of positive feedback - I look forward to the next one.

Finally, organisation and introducing systems to improve efficiency. Finding ways of saving time is very important within the role of an EA. The greatest challenge for an EA is to keep everything together when things are not going to plan, and new systems can be a great help in this regard. I found that gaining a coaching qualification and learning about emotional intelligence has been a valuable addition to my CPD toolbox.’

How important is it for a modern EA to learn about different business areas throughout their career?

‘Extremely important. At the beginning of my journey towards becoming an EA I remember articles suggesting that the EA role would be wiped out with the emergence of computers. Two decades later the role has not disappeared but grown increasingly strategic and has never been so prominent. It has become expected for EAs and PAs to be more strategically involved and understand all areas of the business.

I understood this at the beginning of my EA career. My boss supported and funded my study towards a CMI postgraduate degree qualification in management which covered all areas of the business and included a final project dissertation. I then went on to apply to become a Chartered Manager which is the highest accolade to achieve within management in the UK. Recently I have gained a Level 7 CIPD qualification in Learning and Talent Management - another area which will be very useful to my expanding role.

Constant learning like this will become vital in the future, particularly as the role becomes more strategic – having a greater variety of skills will also open doors to some new roles starting to emerge in line with the needs. For example, in the USA the title ‘Chief of Staff’ is becoming increasingly established with several transferable skills from the EA position. I have recently noticed a scattering of posts based in London too.’

How important is the adoption of new technology to an EA/PA today?

‘New technology is fantastic, but keep in mind the more systems you have, the more complex your work becomes. I use Outlook a lot, all documents are attached within meeting invites and I use the calendar to prompt my activity as it’s synced to my phone. Simple but very effective, particularly as there’s so much to remember as an EA! Also, OneNote is very good to keep all your projects and documentation from several platforms in one place for reference. Tech is very important for the modern PA/EA so find out what works for you and what keeps your team efficient – don’t overcomplicate!’

And finally, what does the future hold for your career?

‘The future for me as always will be to constantly evolve my professional development. I enjoy how my role gives me an overall view of all areas of the business and having the knowledge to make a valuable difference is a key driver for me. I’m also looking forward to continuing my educational committee role, supporting and mentoring other assistants, whether executive, personal or virtual, to help them achieve their goals and further the strategic value of the profession in their own way. Personally, I see my career leading towards a role in the C-Suite, hopefully demonstrating just how very rewarding a career as an EA can be, with almost limitless opportunity.’

If you’d like to discuss this interview, or want to find out more about how to thrive in your PA/EA career, please contact your local consultant.

About this author

Roddy joined Hays in 1999 as a Recruitment Consultant. In 2012 he took over operational responsibility for Hays in Scotland, managing dedicated teams providing expert temporary and permanent recruitment services for a wide range of sectors and professions. From 2017, he has been the lead for Hays Personal & Executive Assistants business across the UK, providing strategic leadership to over 200 consultants.

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